In Bertolt Brecht’s “The Good Woman of Setzuan,” three gods descend on the ghetto in hopes of renewing their faith in humanity.
Their quest sounds reasonable enough: Can they find just one good person amid all the iniquity and soured lives? It doesn’t look promising, but eventually they come upon a young back-streets prostitute who shows a glimmer of decency. In a celestial experiment, the deities help the girl buy a tobacco shop and then wait to see how she responds to prosperity.
But even a new, upstanding life presents pitfalls. Friends and enemies alike take advantage of her generosity, fate seems to conspire against her and the girl’s resolve is tested repeatedly. You don’t have to search much to find the victim in Brecht’s reform-minded thinking: the most easily exploited are the few good, honest people who try to overcome society’s evil.
“The Good Woman of Setzuan,” in a Cal State Fullerton production that captures the moralistic essence of Brecht’s piece and the playwright’s signature theatrical style reasonably well, settles on Shen Te, the gentle-hearted streetwalker and symbol for Brecht’s indignation.
Through Shen Te (Kathleen D. Dunn), Brecht has his ideal archetype, a heroine who emerges from life’s dung heap like a soiled phoenix, eager to find the shining path. The fact that she’s thwarted at almost every turn just underscores Brecht’s familiar themes of social and political inequality.
Director Ziad H. Hamzeh understands Brecht’s dogmatic emphasis on Shen Te as a metaphor for life’s ills; through her, Brecht seeks a starting point for his pleas for reform, and Hamzeh keeps in touch with these issues. There’s a deep moodiness of intent here, sometimes awkward and heavy-handed, but generally faithful to Brecht’s point of view.
Hamzeh also evokes a Brechtian atmosphere by emphasizing both the exotic and remote in his staging, from D. Silvio Volonte’s dank, mossy-looking set of a community so removed it seems subterranean to Gail Liston Lennox’s idealized costumes and Lisa K. Hampton’s alternatingly stark and somber lighting.
The student cast has also studied Brecht’s style and has taken his acting philosophy to heart. The performances are, as Brecht recommends, not naturalistic but contrived. You always know the characters are performing, but that’s the point--the audience is supposed to realize that a message, a stage-worthy dialectic, is being delivered.
Still, this approach doesn’t always make for pleasureable theater. The sameness of attitude and technique leads to redundancy and dullness, and when the mind wanders even the most valid lessons can be missed. At Fullerton, there are periods of drift.
Fortunately, Dunn fares the best under this approach, managing to reveal Shen Te’s depth as sort of an Everywoman. This is her journey, and if we don’t feel tied to her in some way, than it’s all pointless. Dunn works forcefully to keep us involved and, for the most part, succeeds.
‘THE GOOD WOMAN OF SETZUAN’
A Cal State Fullerton production of Bertolt Brecht’s play. Directed by Ziad H. Hamzeh. With Kathleen D. Dunn, Timothy Pulice, Brian Muir, Greg Neagle, Christopher Huskin, Meredith Woodson, Julie M. L. Tucek, Chris Van Horn, Michi Marcus, Carla Michelle Johnson, Joel T. Cotter, Amy R. Baird, Keven Bossenmeyer, Carol Van Natta, Thomas C. Sunstrom, Jeani Finnerty, Carol M. Oune, Sean R. MacArthur, Joey Ancona, Laura Francesca Walsh, Mark Rohde and Rich Remedios. Set by D. Silvio Volonte. Costumes by Gail Liston Lennox. Lighting by Lisa K. Hampton. Makeup and hair by Angela D. Butvich. Sound by Patty Takahashi. Composers John P. Hoover and Shane W. Cadman. Plays Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. with a 2:30 p.m. show on Saturday and a 5 p.m. show on Sunday at the Little Theatre, 800 N. State College Blvd., Fullerton. Tickets: $5, $6. (714) 773-3371.